A shake-up of Britain's secrecy laws and those powers enabling police to enter the home has been ordered by the Prime Minister as part of sweeping changes to the constitution.
A review has been ordered by Gordon Brown of the 250 powers of entry for police and public authorities to a person's home without permission, following concerns that they were abused in recent high-profile cases of terrorist suspects. "We should consider whether we need to do more to offer redress for the individual against any disproportionate use of powers by the state," said Mr Brown.
Chief police officers and the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, have been told to draw all the powers of entry under a single code of practice. Mr Brown also announced that the use by police of section 44 of the 2000 Terrorism Act to arrest protesters is being reviewed. It was under this act that the veteran Labour leftwinger Walter Wolfgang was briefly arrested after being thrown out of a Labour annual conference for heckling Jack Straw, then the foreign secretary.
Calling for "a new chapter in our country's story of liberty", the Prime Minister unveiled a comprehensive package of reforms that are intended to mark a radical break the Blair administration, an effort to restore trust before the next election. Mr Brown said those changes would include "new rights for the public expression of dissent".
In a surprise move, Mr Brown has appointed Paul Dacre, the editor in chief of Associated Newspapers – publishers of the Daily Mail, to review the 30-year rule governing the release of cabinet papers and Government secret papers.
Speaking to Liberty, the civil rights campaign group, Mr Brown said there would be "new freedoms that guarantee the independence of non-governmental organisations". He promised "the removal of barriers to investigative journalism" and "new rights to access public information where previously it had been withheld".
Shami Chakrabarti, Liberty's director, said: "After so many years of relentless political attacks on liberty, it is brave for any Prime Minister to give a speech in its name. He must be aware, however, that this does not sit well with detention without charge and compulsory identity cards. The standards, like the stakes, must now be raised." A senior Downing Street aide said: "The purpose of this speech is that the British people rightly value the concept of liberty, but... the question is how do we adopt this to the new challenges for the 21st century." The centrepiece of the reforms is the prospect of a Bill of Rights and Duties promised by Mr Brown within days of taking office, but the Prime Minister's aides conceded it was still some years off.
The appointment of Mr Dacre could prove politically contentious by allowing the early release of the Thatcher government papers on the miners' strike and the Falklands war before the next election.
Mr Dacre will review the rule with Sir Joe Pilling, a former Northern Ireland permanent secretary, and the historian David Cannadine. They are due to report early next year. Ministers are consulting on widening the scope of Freedom of Information legislation to cover private companies running services for the public sector and tougher charges for the use of FoI requests are being ditched.
Mr Brown said: "We do this because of the risk that such proposals might have placed unacceptable barriers between the people and public information... Freedom of Information can be inconvenient, at times frustrating and indeed embarrassing for governments. But freedom of information is the right course because government belongs to the people, not the politicians."
Mr Straw, now Secretary of State for Justice, announced the details of the reforms to Parliament with three consultation reports on war powers and treaties; judicial appointments; and managing protest around Parliament.
The Government is surrendering its power to declare war or ratify treaties without a vote in Parliament. Mr Straw said it was essential that any guarantee of a vote before troops could be sent to war "would not damage morale, hinder us in meeting our international obligations, nor inhibit operational flexibility and the need for secrecy and to act in emergencies".
Mr Brown also said criminals such as Mad Frankie Fraser and the armed robber John McVicar would be prevented from profiting from books or films about their crimes. There is also a planned crackdown on the trade in personal data such as health records. But the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, who will review data protection, has been asked to protect investigative journalists.
The Prime Minister raised suspicions that he could be rethinking his commitment to the introduction of ID cards after he referred to the "continuing debate" over them in his speech. But his aides insisted that there would be no change of policy. On House of Lords reform, MPs were told all-party discussions were continuing.
Powers under review
* The 250 powers that allow the police and public authorities to enter people's homes without permission are to be drawn into a single code of practice to stop abuses. All other powers of entry are being reviewed by the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith.
* Section 44 of the 2000 Terrorism Act enabling the police to arrest protesters such as Walter Wolfgang is to be reviewed following an outcry at police abuses.
* The power of the police to stop protesters around the House of Parliament also is to be reviewed. The peace camp on Parliament Square is also open to consultation, but the square must be protected as a World Heritage Site.
* Tougher charges for Freedom of Information releases are to be dropped. The scope of the FOI legislation is to be extended to cover private companies carrying out public services.
* Criminals are to be prevented from profiting from memoirs but investigative journalists are to be protected. ID cards to go ahead, but a review of protected data held by public bodies will be carried out by Information Commissioner Richard Thomas and Dr Mark Walport, Director of the Wellcome Trust to see whether the rules should be liberalised.
* The 30-year rule on the release of Cabinet papers is to be reviewed by Paul Dacre, editor-in-chief of the Daily Mail.
* Jack Straw, Justice Secretary, issued three consultation papers on 'constitutional renewal': Managing protest around Parliament; War powers and Treaties, and Judicial Appointments.
* Parliament is to be guaranteed a vote before Britain goes to war again or signs a treaty. Judges could be vetted by MPs before their appointments.
* A Bill of Rights and Duties is promised but some years off. It could give Britain a written constitution, like that of the United States, for the first time.Reuse content